Meet the Finnish Forest Magic

The following narrative was written by my very good friend and colleague, Stephen Heap (University of Jyväskylä in Finland). He is a soft-spoken and incredible storyteller and this is a story about a forest survey, but really so much more.

story of forest 3

Story of the Forest by Stephen Heap, PhD

The pale sun of an autumn dawn shines through the trees to illuminate a shallow valley. Brown ferns, fading into death with the chill of the coming winter, are speckled across a mat of green moss. Trees placidly stand on either side of the valley, comfortably watching the scene below. Their shadows leave dark bars across the floor. The subdued shade accentuates the brighter patches, which shine with a golden luster like the skin of a sensuous lover in a sunlit bedroom.

Standing at the foot of this short valley one can see a change of scenery up ahead. A hillside, dominated by the white bark of birch; their leaves having already fallen to freckle the land below with yellow leaves that gleam against the dark soil beneath. Senses rise in anticipation of what lies ahead, and curiosity takes a hold of the mind. Adventure beckons.

This is what the forests feel to me: a constant adventure waiting to happen. It is in the forest that I cultivate and refresh my capacity for curiosity, personal narrative, and reflection that serve as a source of strength in my daily life. My journey as a scientist, and the challenges that it requires, can only be made with this strength. Hence, my contribution to society depends upon the forest and other natural places. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to join a group of young conservationists on an initial survey of a threatened forest in eastern Finland.

The conservation group was responding to some recent aerial photos of potential areas in a forest that could potentially achieve protection status. The forest is at threat from logging interests and plans to develop lakeside cottages. To the idea of nature conservancy, however, these plans are unacceptable. This forest is one of the few remaining areas in all of southern Finland to be relatively healthy. Despite some cutting, much of the forest remains in an untouched state. Furthermore, little infrastructure exists beyond a road network. It is also a special forest. A recent documentary, set in the area and capturing the lives of plants and animals across the seasons, had touched the hearts of the Finnish people. As such, protecting this area as much as possible, to keep it as a source of natural woodland rather than a material resource, was a major goal for conservation.

The mission for the group that I joined was to briefly survey unexplored areas of forest and get an initial assessment for future areas to focus on. Basically, we would perform a short hike through different areas, noting the diversity of vegetation – a strong indicator for ecosystem health. We would also be on the lookout for the presence of any threatened species. This was a short term tactic, as evidence for threatened species could immediately establish areas protected by law within the forest, and thus serve as strongholds for conservation efforts to establish a large protected area. Species we were hoping to find included an EU-protected flying squirrel, Siberian jays (Perisoreus infaustus), and a variety of mosses and fungis.

People, university students mostly, that possessed skills for species identification and ecosystem assessment were attracted to volunteer for the expedition. Of course, the lure of spending the weekend in a rustic cabin, complete with fireplace and sauna, had a lot to do with the decision as well. There weren’t only students, though. There was also a woman who grew up near the area, a hiker who wanted to preserve his source of recreation, his young son, and the professional conservationist that led the group. We were ten in all. Each of us shared a sense of personal value associated with the forests and the motivation to act on these values. But this weekend was not only about performing a civil duty for conservation efforts, it was about taking the opportunity to reconnect with a source of strength, and spending time with others that felt the same.

What we found was a great deal of variation in the quality of sites, even amongst those patches that looked healthy from the air. This discrepancy in the appearance of quality between aerial photos and from the ground exists because the health of a forest is not only determined by the density of trees, as people often assume. It is actually the diversity of trees, in age and species, that have more influence on ecosystem health. Vegetation is the source of energy, homes, growth and other resources for an entire community of species. More variety in vegetation allows greater variety in other species and the potential for the forest to persist in the environment. If there isn’t enough variation in the forest community, it is likely to disappear if the environment changes.

We found that some areas had been cut and cultivated in such a way as to only allow one tree species of the same age. No young trees to serve as homes and breeding resources for insects, no tall old trees to serve as pillars of the community. The lack of dead trees was especially concerning because they feed the renewal of the ecosystem. Removing dead trees is like forcing the forest to hold its breath. Unfortunately, most people are unaware that such monotonous forests are unhealthy. The lack of swarming insects, fungus infested trees and rotting wood, and the sense of neatness and order are commonly taken as signs of health rather than distress. People can thus be under the impression that exploiting the forest is being done sustainably. But such areas are not the forest, only the basest impression of one. They provide no homes for the woodland species, they are brittle in the face of change, and they do not serve as a personal source of enrichment. Whatever value these areas of forest had, in terms of economically valuable services performed, the potential to exist as a sustainable resource, and the emotional value to individuals, is lost.

But it wasn’t all so bleak. We also found areas that were much more diverse. Different habitats coiled around each other in patterns only guessed at, each filled with a range of denizens. We found glow-in-the-dark moss, tea-producing mushrooms, centuries-old junipers, and crantastic cranberries. Our major success was finding evidence for the endangered flying squirrel. This means that a small area will soon be protected by EU law and untouchable to loggers. Such small victories are critical for conservation efforts, because every bit helps when it comes to fighting the need to exploit our environment. Conservationists must adopt the strategy of killing with a thousand pinpricks because they lack the economic clout and basis in tradition behind the motivation to exploit the natural environment.

We also encountered two pairs of the threatened Siberian jay, fast disappearing from southern Finland due to habitat loss. These birds curiously approached us, investigating the new visitors to their neck of the woods. They flitted about the trees, taking a look from every angle. They followed us as we walked, watching our every move. They also proved to be quite friendly, and would even perch on an outstretched hand for an instant or two. These birds were an utter delight to interact with, and at one point our entire group marveled in glee as we played with the birds in a snowy gully. It is easy to see why the old folklore saw these birds as the returned souls of good people lost to the forest. To those suffering from loss, the friendly antics of these jays would serve as a warm comfort and reassurance that their lost one’s spirit is content. But such birds can only live in well-developed ecosystems, and widespread habitat loss has forced the few remaining families to disperse across the region and seek whatever small patches they can find. However, the distance between these disparate colonies is too great, the population too widespread, and they slowly fade away. Finding them in this forest is a good sign, but the rarity of these birds carries with it the reminder that we’re losing the ecosystems that can support them.

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But how can we act to ensure that such vibrant ecosystems remain? This is the crux of the conservation issue at stake. Standing on a steep hillside that had been blasted by storm and fire, we look down onto a cultivated section of forest at the base of the hill. We stood on scorched earth, piled with fallen trees burnt black. White snow lay in patches over the scene, standing in stark contrast to the ashen trees.

Fire is rare in such forests. People are typically quick to react and extinguish fires, but here they arrived a bit later than usual. Furthermore, people also tend to clean up after storm and fire damage, taking the dead trees for fuel, which they didn’t do in this case. Certain species of insects, adapted to exploit fire-damaged woods, are often taken to be a sign of poor forest health, encouraging speedy management of burnt areas. In truth, such insects reflect the natural breakdown of the burnt area. The ecosystem, of which these small beetles are a component, allow the matter and energy contained within the damaged area to return to the forest. Although we appeared to stand on scorched earth, amidst blackened trees covered in ash and snow, we actually stood on a vibrant source of life.

At the foot of the hill stood a patch of spruce. Nothing but spruce. Dotting the landscape at regular, metric intervals. All standing at the same height. The trees are a deep dark green, and the impression is one of military men performing drill at a front line base. Despite striking an impressive pose in the thin sheet of snow that rests along the branches, this orderly patch of trees is doomed, useless as anything other than a (diminishing) fuel source for humans, and completely uninspiring.

The typical considerations of what constitutes as healthy or damaged is skewed when it comes to the common assessment of forests. People also act on the belief that the forest needs their management for it to be healthy. But forests in a healthy state can take care of themselves. If we are wondering how to act in order to preserve diversity in our natural environment, this conservation group believes that it’s better to just leave things be when it comes to healthy forests.

It is the final hours before our mission ends and we go our separate ways. I lie comfortably on the stone floor of a cave. The contours of the ground are smooth and supportive; my head rests on my arm. The air is warm and refreshing and the light is dim. Outside, it is cold and it snows. A companion had found this small cave, a natural alcove beneath a cracked monolith, a short time ago. Inside, we found evidence for the comings and goings of many creatures. A dried scat pile told us that the cave had been used by badgers and wolves at some point. There was also a makeshift fireplace, a roll of birch leaves and the remains of a woven container, which got us thinking about the person that had left them there.

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Lying in the cave, I had an idea of what the cave was. It was a place of temporary refuge. A place that provides the opportunity to seek warmth, comfort and refreshment away from the harsh world outside. It is a source of respite, giving the inhabitant the strength to return to that harsh world and continue the struggle of life. I imagine the stories of the creatures that use this cave. A portly badger, using it as shelter when it ranges far from its sett to find food. A lone wolf, passing through the area in search of a new home after being expelled from its old range and tracked by hunters. It takes a day of rest to build strength for tomorrow, when it will continue its long search for a pack. A traveler from our grandfather’s age treks through a primeval forest on some quest that we will never know. In the blinding chaos of a storm that threatens his life, he finds shelter and a place to survive.

Perhaps all a bit dramatic, but it does get me thinking that the forest is like the cave. It is a place for people to find support in confronting the challenges that they face. Sometimes the journey through the forest can be long and confusing. We need places where we can take shelter and find strength. If such places are nowhere to be found, then we will be lost.

It was in that cave that I got a piece of understanding for why the forest needs to be protected. Undeveloped areas represent an important resource. They serve as our connection with the natural world, a connection that we must cultivate as a society if we are to persist in the face of an uncertain future. Scientists are increasingly finding evidence that our current economy is unsustainable and catastrophically damaging to the environment that nurtures us. We need a firm understanding of biological systems, and our connection with them, if we are to find our way. We need people who respect these connections when making individual and social decisions. But for people to make decisions that positively shape our future, we need to have pristine wilderness that allows people to reflect, find support, gather inspiration and define themselves. The forests nourish a person’s emotional well-being, and we need people with this emotional intelligence to help guide humanity. Conservationists are acting to keep this connection a strong one, but they fight a battle against centuries-old institutions that favor exploitation of natural areas for resources alone. If we are to overcome the old ways of doing things, and forge a brighter future for ourselves, we need to see the forests as the shelter and source of strength that they can be.

Further Reading

Halme et al. 2013. Challenges of ecological restoration: lessons from forests in northern Europe. Biological Conservation 167. 248-256.

Metsän tarina (documentary set in the forest) IMDB:

“Meet the…” is a collaboration between The Finch & Pea and Nature Afield to bring Nature’s amazing creatures into your home.

Author: Heidi Kay Smith

Biology PhD student on the cusp of finishing and moving on to a postdoc in the behavioral ecology of amphibians. I blog to share my thoughts, ideas, and general feelings of awe of the natural world.

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